Sunday, October 15, 2017

Intro to mushrooms

In 1991 German tourists hiking in the Otztal Alps on the Austrian-Italian border came upon a corpse sticking out of a glacier. The well-preserved natural mummy, later nicknamed “Otzi,” died between 3239 and 3105 BC. Among his belongings were two species of mushrooms with leather strings through them: birch fungus known for medicinal qualities, and a variety known as a “tinder conk” in what is believed to be a firelighting kit.

Otzi’s connection to mushrooms was just one of the engaging facts that emerged from Fungi for Resiliency; Intro to Mushrooms & Fungi earlier this month in Newburgh. Hosted by Smugtown Mushrooms at the Moon infospace on Liberty Street, the weekday workshop was packed with attendees with all different levels of experience in mushrooms.

Facilitator Olga from Rochester-based Smugtown Mushrooms taught the group about mushroom biology and lifecycles, ecological roles, growing and cooking, common misconceptions, as well as medical and industry uses. Chaga tea, made from a dense black mushroom that resembles burnt charcoal, was passed around.

What is a mushroom? In the past 100 years we’ve learned, contrary to popular belief, that they’re more similar to animals than to plants. They can’t make their own food, they need sunlight, and mushrooms must breathe oxygen. In school they’re tossed in lesson plans with the plant kingdom  because we’re simply more resonant with their resemblance to plant life. A common misconception about mushrooms is that you cannot get sick from simply touching a poisonous variety—it must be ingested.

Olga reviewed the ecological roles of mushrooms. Some varieties act as decomposers. In forests they break down dead organic matter so plants can reuse it, otherwise forests would be covered in mile-high piles of leaf litter. Fungi are resilient in their search for ways to survive. The field of mycoremediation, in which mushrooms are trained to eat new types of food, studies varieties as they’re used to break down pollutants such as spilled oil. Species have been formulated to break down fecal chloroforms in ponds near factory farms.

Many varieties release properties that are antibiotic, antifungal, antivirus, and antiparasitic. The versatile turkeytail mushroom has been sued by Japanese researchers to create cancer-fighting drugs, and the variety’s mycelium is being used to create molds for car parts and packaging materials.

Supermarkets and salad bars sell white button mushrooms which can be consumed raw, but Olga recommends all mushrooms be cooked, simply because they’ll taste better. The chitin element, like a shrimp’s exoskeleton, breaks down during cooking, and varieties contain elements we can’t absorb without heating them.

Olga had dozens of mushroom samples spread out on a table and passed them around. Collecting and identifying mushrooms is a sensory experience and touch and smell are important. Elements like spore color, veils, gill and stalk attachment, tubes, spines, teeth, and pores can all be used to identify. Some mushrooms are annuals while others are perennials. Some glow in the dark and others can be used to dye fabric. We passed around a variety of tinder conk, like caveman Otzi was carrying, and could feel the sample’s density. Olga recounted the story of a friend who, after accidentally leaving a tinder conk variety in the oven for too long, submerged the burned mushroom in water and tossed it in the trash. The mushroom continued to smolder and the trash can lit on fire. The apartment soon followed. Olga cautioned attendees to avoid mushrooms not grown in the U.S., specifically dried varieties that may be full of heavy metals which are absorbed like a sponge. Since common names vary, learning Latin names is important.

Olga owns and operates Smugtown mushrooms in Rochester, NY and has been cultivating mushrooms for six years, an interest that spiraled from research in wild plant medicine. She encouraged beginners to join a mushroom club and attend workshops. Comprehensive resources can be found through and the North American Mycological Association.

Smugtown Mushrooms:

$5 film fest

10 films for $5 = a super deal. This year was my second attending the Manhattan Short film festival at nearby SUNY Orange in Newburgh, a global festival featured 10 finalists narrowed down from over 600 submissions. The contest screened across six continents from September 28, 2017-October, 8, 2017 with 146 venues in the U.S. Finalists ranged from Do No Harm, a 12-minute gory fight to the death in an operating room, to Just Go!, a romantic and heroic tale of a man who lost his legs in a childhood accident. In Fickle Bickle a plumber takes over a client’s luxurious home to seduce a gold digger, and Mare Nostrum illustrates how a Syrian father’s reckless treatment of his daughter prepares her for the chance at a better life.  

Attendees use their ballots to vote for a favorite film and favorite actor. My favorite work was Viola, Franca, a 15-minute true story of an Italian woman rebelling against her community’s tradition that dictates she marry her rapist in 1965 Sicily. The young woman, a virgin before she was raped, refused a "rehabilitating marriage," a tradition that not only prevented her from losing her “honor,” but enabled her rapist to have his crime extinguished.

Winners are revealed after votes from all over the world are counted. The winning film of 2017 was 8 Minutes, an almost 13-minute film from the country of Georgia, about an aging magician and a countdown to the end of Earth’s daylight.

Film lovers can connect through Manhattan Short’s online features like contestant entry info, DVD shop, viewer reaction videos, and a forum for thoughts and opinions about the featured films.

Manhattan Short:

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Intro to china

With China being kind of far from the Hudson Valley, one recent way to experience its culture was the Moon Festival in Mount Hope, a small town in the northwestern part of Orange County. This welcoming and colorful event recognizes the annual harvest celebration in Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese culture that signals the end of summer and the start of autumn. The free event on Saturday, September 16 featured crafts performances, games, exhibits, food, and vendors, as well as a children’s space—all to immerse visitors in Chinese culture.

Detailed signage at each station, in English and Chinese, helped visitors understand the activity’s process and cultural significance. A sign adjacent to a group handling giant animal puppets told people how the traditional “lion dance” borrows moves from martial arts and is staged to honor guests. Women at craft tables guided children and adults as they wrote their names in calligraphy onto bookmarks and folded paper into vibrant origami lotus flowers.

One station featured a demonstration of Falun Dafa, a physical meditative exercise of simple poses to increase energy and spiritual connection while forsaking attachments. The nearby Dragon Springs sanctuary and temple is home to practitioners who fled China as the Communist Party forbid the practice and persecuted practitioners who were arrested, raped, tortured, sent to labor camps, or killed for their peaceful practice. 

The event was spectacularly designed to welcome and immerse people in the culture. Actors in traditional dress didn't hesitate to pose with attendees for photos, and food vendors were generous with samples.      

Mount Hope Moon Festival:

Friday, September 22, 2017

17 seconds

Of all art forms the written word is the most privileged. Learning to read is unavoidable. So few of us become proficient in other arts like painting, ceramics or woodworking. The idea of the written artist statement was the primary focus of the recent panel discussion Artists Who Write about Art. Part of the Milford Readers & Writers Festival, the event was one of many author readings, panels and conversations during the 3-day annual festival in September, in Milford, Pennsylvania.

Moderated by Maleyne Syracuse, the panel consisted of Kristen Muller, Executive Director of the nearby Peters Valley School of Craft; Bruce Dehnert, Head of Ceramics at Peters Valley School of Craft; and Susan Brown, Associate Curator of Textiles at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

When viewing a piece of art, do the writings of the artists affect our understanding of their work? Why are artists asked to write about what they’ve made? Syracuse stressed how our culture privileges verbal and written communication. Crossing boundaries within artistic genres is isn’t novel when an author is asked to help develop their book into a film, but they’re never asked to construct a ceramic vase in an effort to clarify their story.

Panelists outlined a number of reasons artist statements are important despite the fact that many artists hate writing them.

Galleries and auctions simply need words to market an artist’s work. An artist’s bio and photos of work are vital to promoting it and panelists talked about how the most useful statements talk about the body of work and the danger of overcomplicating statements.

Works can be opaque and cryptic for viewers and understanding depends on who is approaching the work. Studies show viewers look at a work of art for about 17 seconds. Captioning information can make viewers take a second look. One panelist referred to a collection of Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother in which the painter talks about his process, feelings and even the colors that he used. As humans we crave narrative, we want stories. Artist statements put the work in the context of a story: the type of glaze used, inspiration, firing method, historical context, political climate, etc.

Connecting with a broader audience
Some people are simply not interested in art. When viewers prefer other interests such as history, construction, or health, referring to a work in the context of its artist’s time period, the piece’s materials, or even their health or personal problems can help viewers understand a work from their perspective. Writing about art is about discovery and you have to meet people where they are. A printed catalogue gives curators more room to share those elements.

The panel discussed other topics and fielded questions from the audience. Dehnert said for a long time he was skeptical of the use of words in a painting. He told the audience about his own father’s reaction to a work that displayed the phrase, “did you really think they cared.” The words had such an emotional impact that the man left the room to sit and sat on the sidewalk outside. The structure of spaces such as museums, galleries and actions affect the artworks they display. Panelists described Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts which houses large scale immersive works in its cavernous 250,000 square feet of space, as well as a museum that constructed a replica 1980s New York City subway setting for a Basquiat exhibit. The audience questioned the use trend of omitting some or all labelling for exhibited art and a panelist explained the practice is troublesome from a curatorial perspective, and also for determining what art is original and what is derivative.

The panel explored how changes in technology and social media affect the art world. From a curatorial perspective, simply being able to digitally copy and paste reduces time spend retyping text, but social media has piled on the work. Now curators and artists maintain blogs and social media profiles which streamline efforts to reach out to people and invite them where ever they are. One panelist was thrilled with the “Instagrammable experience” and connection social media makes between an artist and their audience.

Muller said social media helps artists reach a broader and non-traditional audience but artists can feel pressure to be more public than they would like to be.

Milford Readers & Writers Festival:

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Upstate girls

Known as “Collar City” because of its roots in textile production, the City of Troy in Rensselaer County has a storied history as one of the most prosperous cities in American history. Through much of the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century the city was home to thriving shirt factories and steel mills. Its position along the Hudson River made Troy a key point for meat and vegetable shipments from Vermont to New York City. A significant source of the city’s wealth came from the steel industry. Ore and coal were shipped from the Midwest on the Erie Canal to Troy, where the materials were processed before making their way down the Hudson to New York City. Today, early examples of the nation’s first steel structural supports and iron storefronts can be found in the city’s architecture. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, one of the best engineering schools in the country, was founded there in 1824.

Photographer Brenda Kenneally’s exhibit Upstate Girls: Unravelling Collar City tells a much different story. The city that was once a shining start of the Industrial Revolution has been hit hard by industrial decline. By 2013, the City’s poverty rate had reached 28% and unemployment hit 8.3%. The Troy residents pictured in Upstate Girls are young women from families who have been left behind by another kind of revolution.

During an artist talk on August 26 at Hudson Hall in Hudson, Kenneally introduced the audience to her project that documents a group of teenagers in poverty-stricken Troy as they move in and out of apartments, serve prison sentences, have babies, and live through addiction, broken families, and failing relationships. In her short film “Blood and Jelly” she shows families celebrating births, eating food, and living lives in their homes. The babies are being born to teenage girls, the food is almost entirely highly processed, and the apartments are filthy and disorganized. Children are unclothed and adults wear pajamas all day. Kenneally talked about the prevalence of sugary and salty foods and how their addictive nature keeps people like her subjects placated.

Also present was writer Linda Tirado who, along with Kenneally, recounted her experience living in poverty and how addiction contributes to the overwhelming prevalence of chemically manufactured food in the diets of poor people.  “The addiction manifests itself even when you don’t realize it,” said Tirado.

Kenneally and Tirado responded to the common why-do-poor-people-eat-so-much-junk-food reaction to their work with the fact that poor people, especially those living in food deserts, and must choose between terrible and worse. The two women recounted a shared experience of the social backlash to their work. Their willingness to share the stories of the poor opened their subjects, and themselves, to vile reactions and judgement from viewers. They talked about how we demoralize lower classes for how they comfort themselves and how at the same time they’re not able to defend themselves. Part of the problem is that there exists insufficient language to help us talk about how little people exist on. Tirado explained these two tracks of society were as firmly in place in the past as they are today, and she doubted that people could have an honest discussion in the current political climate when people are consumed with fighting about what’s fake news and what is not.

Kenneally’s work was displayed as part of the LightField festival of “lens-based art” spotlighting social issues and generating discussion about the role of visual storytelling, as well as including diverse participation from the community of gentrifying community of Hudson. The Hudson Hall displays were part of the JUST THE FACTS exhibit investigating marginalized people left behind by technology and globalization

Kenneally’s photos, of survival and resilience, will be released in a 300-page book in 2018. She established A Little Creative Class, Inc., a nonprofit, to benefit people like those pictured in her work. The mentorship program targets youths ages 18-21 who live outside of New York City, offering them opportunities to explore art and help them reach their full potential and find economic self-sufficiency in an increasingly idea-based economy. The program removes youths, whose capacity was diminished from the beginning, from the daily drama, scarcity and violence of their neighborhoods to expose them to a drama-free environment where they can explore art and science. The organization’s website outlines the science behind child development and creativity:  
Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. They tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules,” the Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile reports.

Some of the Little Creative Class participants were present at the artist talk and spoke about their experience. Participants who return to their communities are encouraged to act as mentors, bringing knowledge, connections, and tools to new faces.

Brenda Kenneally:
A Little Creative Class, Inc.:
LightField Festival of Photography & Multimedia Art:

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Water sources

What’s in your water? Maybe medicine that was flushed down the toilet, chemicals seeping from a landfill, pesticides or fuel. The path of contaminants from their source to our drinking water was the issue at the center of the Newburgh Clean Water Project’s recent meeting.

Almost everyone who lives in or near Newburgh is familiar with the water supply’s contamination with PFOS. Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid is a key ingredient in firefighting foam and when it was identified in Newburgh’s water supply from Washington Lake, the NYS DEC took action to identify Stewart Air National Guard base as a source. The focus of the meeting of the Newburgh Clean Water Project was to educate the public about the situation. Besides offering a platform for discussion, the local action group gave a presentation on local water contamination and prepped attendees with materials for letter writing.

The chemical was first identified in 2014 and since then the Stewart Air National Guard Base as a Superfund site which requires it be cleaned up by the Department of Defense. The City offers blood testing for residents, but PFOS testing is different than the lead testing the general public is more familiar with. Not only are there fewer labs that offer the service, but the tests require a doctor’s prescription. Organizers proposed one solution: a public meeting at St. Luke’s hospital with a doctor onsite to write prescriptions. Another interesting practice that was discussed was the Department of Health’s tracking of test results. Though the agency tracks cancer diagnoses and clusters, they don’t track non-cancer health effects such as neurological and kidney issues caused by our environments. These are studied by the Center for Disease Control.

It was fascinating to learn that the City of Newburgh’s water system was designed in the 19th century when the lands were natural and pristine. Since then, the advent of the automobile and construction of the Interstate highway system moved the transportation hub from the Hudson River westward toward the intersection of I-84 and I-87.

Presenters referred to another case of contaminated water in the village of Hoosick Falls in Rensselaer County. In 2015 community members contacted the government with concerns after their own testing revealed contaminants, Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Trichloroethylene (TCE), in the water. This led to the village’s Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, its largest employer, to be placed on the EPA’s superfund site list. A Superfund site is land identified as containing hazardous waste and has been identified by the EPA as being a risk to human health and/or the environment. The sites are put on a list and remediation is made a top priority.

The group’s presentation included observances made during a recent walking tour of the affected areas. Aerial maps showed how the City’s water supply is sourced from outside its boundaries, limiting the City’s ability to legislate for its own safety. It was fascinating to see an unlined capped landfill in New Windsor that I didn’t know existed. Organizers explained the strategic designation of wetlands in the heart of the region we were examining. Wetlands are important for water purification, shoreline stabilization, ground water recharge, and they act as protection from floods. The map indicated, in green color, a region of wetlands sitting downhill from Stewart ANG base. The small splotches of green indicated regions that measured 12 acres or less, which are classified as insignificant wetlands. If the divisions caused by man-made roadways were combined, the wetlands region would total 50-70 acres. The map showed the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline project which would cut straight through the region.

The group distributed materials to help attendees draft and mail letters to politicians and the Department of Defense, and stressed the importance of asking smart and informed questions to politicians who are already overwhelmed. They stressed that our local water safety issue is at the same time an international issue. Urban planners, businesses, and environmental activists worldwide have this same discussion. It is possible to simultaneously have our businesses and clean water, and it’s important to not hastily blame unethical decisions for the contaminants in our water, but be mindful that they are perhaps simply the result of poor planning. The group’s mission comes from a place of a long-term solution: not fighting lots of small fires or having to renew the same fight again in five or so years for yet another chemical.

Newburgh Clean Water Project:

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Obtainable objects

One of my favorite places in Newburgh is the Ann Street Gallery. This award winning space on Ann Street features contemporary art exhibits and I was excited to experience Bon Marche on its very last day. Translated from French as ‘cheap’ or ‘a good deal,’ the exhibit featured lower priced works, mostly prints, of incredible variety: beetles, cityscapes, cupcakes, cats, and postage stamps were just a few. A massive concrete block covered with the image of a horse lay on the floor and 3D paper collages were displayed in the center of the entrance.  

Though the gallery is small, the works displayed gave a comprehensive look at the art of printmaking. As indicated on their website:

With over 200 distinctive pieces by 48 artists from across the country and abroad, the show presents a fluid exchange of ideas and explores the endless possibilities open to contemporary printmakers. Every form of the printmaking technique is covered, including calligraphy, etching, monotype, metal relief, dry point, silkscreen, polyp late, screen-printing, lithography, woodcut, collage, and digital. Viewers of the exhibition can also expect to see some original prints that break new ground in the use of the medium.

Up next at the gallery is the Interaction of Colour, a group exhibit about the visual element of color and how it shapes how we feel.

Ann Street Gallery: